Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Puerto Rican Hotel Hopping

Five nights, four hotels, one amazing trip

Walking Old San Juan just after arriving from Atlanta.
For all the men out there planning an anniversary trip, let me save you some trouble: If it's a five-night excursion, try to stay in fewer than four hotels.

As my wife Katy and I prepared to celebrate four years of marriage, we had different desires in mind.

She wanted a beach trip, complete with umbrella drinks and cabana boys. I wanted adventure. We were both looking for a sunny spot where we could experience a different culture.

We settled on Puerto Rico. It's technically in the U.S., being a commonwealth and all, but its people and geography were totally foreign to us as mainlanders. The flights to San Juan were affordable, and the island promised a good mix of outdoor activity and beach bumming. I couldn't wait to dust off my rusty, limited Spanish. Katy packed some books and magazines, preparing to dust off a few beach chairs.

With the destination set, we started working on where to stay and what to do. Katy left most of the planning to me, since I arrange about four overseas trips a year for my work as an international business reporter.

Here's the problem: I only require three things from business hotels - low price, fast Internet and some kind of bed. As I remembered from our honeymoon, making plans for two is much more complex.

I became overwhelmed with all the criteria swimming in my head as I surfed the Web.

I wanted romance without breaking the bank. I wanted a secluded beach that wasn't too far from the city. I wanted to be able to move around the island without feeling rushed. I wracked my brain, talked to Puerto Rican acquaintances and scoured the Internet, hoping to find the perfect mix.

In the end, since all the resorts seemed like equally suitable bases for exploring the capital city, price became a prime factor in San Juan, where we would at least start our journey. Priceline won out, since we could save 50 percent off the going rate on Hotels.com and other sites by naming a price. And with all the added fees that resorts pile on in San Juan, shaving half off the top helped keep these places in our price range.

There was another factor for using Priceline. We were booking two nights at first but figured Priceline would allow us to extend at least one night at the same rate. If we hated our hotel or wanted to venture out into the countryside, we could move on.

This did give us more options, but it also meant I had more chances to mess things up...

Looking west from Conrad Condado Plaza at dusk.
Condado, a trendy district just east of Old San Juan, was the area where the city's resort scene first took root. Its heyday might've been last century, but I saw no lull in activity.

Along Avenida Ashford, locals came out in the waning sunlight to run along the sidewalks. As night fell, cars jammed the main thoroughfare on their way to the area's many restaurants, bars and casinos. Extensive reconstruction in the already bustling district should add even more vitality when completed.

The taxi from the airport dropped us off at the Conrad Condado Plaza (an $18 fare) on a rainy Thursday afternoon around 2 p.m. The check-in was seamless, though the room wasn't ready, and the attendant in a dark lobby seemed to be tolerating more than welcoming us. As the concierge took our bags, we took a $14 cab to Old San Juan to wander around. An hour or so later we got the call indicating our room was ready, right on time.

The ninth-floor room was spacious with a comfortable queen-size bed and a balcony overlooking the city, though there was no outdoor seating. Maybe they figured people with city-view rooms couldn't possibly want to enjoy coffee in breeze coming off the lagoon in the morning.

Inside, the room had a deep red accent wall with a matching L-shaped sofa, dark wood furniture and a white flat-panel TV. An art piece depicting a black-and-white flower was centered above the bed, giving off a very Japanese/modern feel.

I guess it's a matter of taste, but it seemed like the overall decor of the hotel was a bit too modern, as if it were trying to compensate for its age, like an old lady wearing too much makeup. But it was pleasant, and we found the room quite comfortable.

We particularly liked the large bathroom. The glass-encased shower was an unintended anniversary present for me, since Katy hates how I fog up the mirror while she's trying to put on makeup.

A few qualms with this hotel:

-10 percent resort fee, whether or not you make use of resort services
-$16 fee for a spot in the dungeon of a parking garage
-Staff was helpful when you could get them, but the phones seemed to ring a long time. A pile of dirty dishes left by a beach chair in the morning was in the same spot 12 hours later.
-Not the place for a beach getaway. There's only one tiny sliver of public beach adjacent to the hotel, and chairs must be rented.
-No one offered to take our bags to our room. I probably wouldn't have let them, but at least give me the option if you're going to charge a resort fee.

A few bright spots:

-Very close to Old San Juan, though this makes the $14 one-way taxi fare set by
the government seem outrageous. The B21 and C53 buses to the old city stop
in front of the hotel every 20 minutes during the week and every half hour on
weekends. I've read that fares are from $0.50 in exact change if you can stand
the wait.
-Very cheerful and helpful concierge desk, especially Yomary.
-Great pools and nice grounds overlooking the ocean.
-Starbucks downstairs that will deliver coffee to your room.
-Free and fast wi-fi.

Sunset on Shacks Beach in front of Villa Tropical.
After two nights in San Juan, we set off for a day of ziplining at Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis and horseback riding on the beach in Isabela, a small town about two hours west of the capital. Since we were driving a lot, I figured we might as well find a charming place to stay on the beach, away from the crowds.

From the reviews on Trip Advisor, Villa Tropical seemed like a winner. It's a hotel split into apartment units right on Shacks Beach between Isabela and Aguadilla, with easy walking and driving access to other beaches.

But once we arrived, it quickly became evident that not all of its units were created equal. The five-star reviews that had drawn my attention came from folks who could watch the sun fade into the ocean from their beachfront decks.

Stupidly, to save a few bucks I chose 1B, a studio on the first floor in the back of the building, above the office and away from the beach. Sure, it had a full kitchen and separate bedroom, but it smelled of age and mildew. The dated bathroom was 1970s yellow and had no hot water. To boot, we were charged a $25 cleaning fee for only staying one night, bringing the price with tax up to $140. That could've bought us a resort room in San Juan at what we were paying.

The words from the lady who handled my booking haunted me: "Your wife will like the one on the beach better," she had said. She was right. As far as Katy was concerned, there was nothing redeeming about my selection, whether or not it was steps away from white sands and a coral reef.

She felt like a mountain climber who comes down too fast from altitude and gets sick. I made a note to never again to slip down the quality scale so quickly.

To be fair, Villa Tropical did have its charms. Trevor, one of the owners, has put together a fantastic, detailed guide to area restaurants and attractions.

Our one sunset was indeed beautiful. The atmosphere was very homey and laid back. We were offered some Coronas from a community cooler downstairs, for instance.

Families were around, but the beach still felt secluded when we spent time there in the morning.

Honestly, I think our disappointment with this property came partly from faulty expectations and the high price that we agreed to pay because we were rushed. If we had expected a low-key surfer's haven and paid half the price, I think we would've had a different feeling altogether.

A glimpse of the immaculate grounds of the Ritz-Carlton San Juan.
Redemption is oh-so-sweet. After bombing on Villa Tropical, we skyrocketed up back up the quality ladder when we landed at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan in Isla Verde for our fourth night.

It was our first time at any Ritz property, and it met our expectations. Everyone, from smiling Monique at the front desk to the guy who swathed our (free) beach chairs with towels for us, seemed to be enjoying their job, and they passed on this feeling of satisfaction to the guests.

The luxury was in the little things. We were greeted with fresh papaya juice when we checked in an hour early. We were asked three times if we needed someone to help with our bags. Next to the pools and on the beach were towel stations with urns of lemon- or pineapple-infused ice water. When we headed to the beach the next morning, we found bowls of chilled oranges set out for guests.

The room wasn't overtly opulent. The decor was simple and traditional, and the furniture was nice. The bathroom, filled with grayish-tan marble, was the real star. My only qualm was looking out the window to see the dingy hotel next door, but you get what you pay for with regard to the view.

Probably the most refreshing thing about the Ritz was that although it was the only place where a resort fee was justified, we didn't have to pay one.

And I didn't feel like they were out to nickel and dime me. There was a $17 daily parking fee, but beach chairs and wireless Internet, which I've had to pay for a la carte at inferior hotels, were free of charge. Also free were the services of the staff, who would help set up chairs by the pool or beach. You could even leave your towels on the chair when done, and they would come by and pick them up. (Can you tell I'm not used to luxury travel?)

In short, if we have the budget for it, we'll definitely return to the Ritz if we're in San Juan again.

La Coca Falls at El Yunque National Forest, near Rio Grande.
Sadly, Hotels.com credit only goes so far, and we had to leave the Ritz after one night, but not before the staff offered to allow us to use the facilities for as long as we wanted for the rest of the day.

After lunch, we headed out to Gran Melia, a golf resort that sits on a peninsula in Rio Grande, which is 30-45 minutes east of San Juan near El Yunque, Puerto Rico's famous rainforest.

We arrived at 5 p.m., an hour after our designated check-in time. When the room wasn't ready, the front desk attendant offered no apology. "Maybe they are behind?" she ventured, without a hint of regret. Luckily the room opened up just as we were heading toward the hospitality room to change and head to the pool.

Gran Melia was an interesting place. It had the feel of a compound where leaving was discouraged. To get to the resort, you drive 10 minutes north from Route 3 on a road that winds through security gates, around fountains and past empty Donald Trump condos, all surrounded by a golf course where no one seemed to be playing. The lack of activity was a bit eerie.

We quickly realized we probably aren't the right clientele for this place, which seemed perfectly suited for business travelers looking for a laid-back rendezvous or families looking to enjoy the beach and the pool. We enjoy a relaxing atmosphere, but we also want to do some things outside the hotel gates.

The rooms were in 19 separate bungalows reached by a short walk or golf-cart ride. Ours was a large suite in Bungalow 18 with a very nice bathroom and big patio. All the floors were a light marble. I can't complain about the room, other than the mattress on the king-size bed. It had no pad and you could feel the mattress pilling beneath the sheets.

The grounds were extensive and include a long, calm beach where we watched the sun sink in to the ocean. With no more chance of tanning, we sought an outdoor hot tub and found the only one was in the spa. Even when it was open, you have to reserve it, but alas, it was closed.

My favorite asthetic aspect of this hotel was the outdoor lobby and the restaurants surrounding the main office. Candles illuminated the area at night, giving it a romantic feel.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Saint Brad of St. Louis

He stands like a statue, motionless except for the baggy, white clothes fluttering in a strong westward breeze from the Mississippi. He wears a backwards baseball cap emblazoned with a cross over a pure white bandanna. Back to the river, he stares silent and still at the Gateway Arch, the symbol of the city he is trying to save. In his left hand he holds a large Christian flag that billows in the wind. At his feet is a towel, positioned like a prayer mat on the hard concrete.

Passing tourists are puzzled. Everything else about the day seems so normal, peaceful even. Jazz floats on the wind from a moored riverboat. People snap photos and marvel at the arch's elliptical wonder.

But this strange man stands out; he emanates mystery. He begs for engagement, either in ridicule or just plain curiosity, but no one dares approach. The saint of St. Louis never moves. His sunglasses remain fixed on the arch and the souls milling around it.

In town for a wedding, our family encounters him on a quick trip to the city's iconic monument, which stands as a symbol of America's bold shift westward at the turn of the 20th century.

After staring for a few moments at this odd display of faith, I decide there's no way I'll find out what sparked it unless I ask. Having shared my faith overseas and encountered university street preachers barking hellfire and brimstone, I've been fascinated with how people try to fulfill God's command to make disciples of all nations.

"Onward Christian soldier," I say as I approach, mentioning the Christian hymn as if it's a secret password designed to break his stony gaze.

He seems surprised, as if this is a first, but keeps his stark posture as we begin to talk. I quickly spring into interview mode. Under his superhero getup is a story of faith more interesting than I could've expected.

A few years ago, Brad Lee was living a rebellious lifestyle and felt that nothing could touch him, but it didn't take long for life to shatter his facade of independence. A female friend, Sunshine, was diagnosed with cancer, and the doctors weren't sure she would survive. The news sent him into a tailspin. Broken down, he cried out desperately for God's help.

Brad felt God drawing him toward repentance. Somehow God revealed that he was not a genie in a bottle. It would take commitment - a full turn from Brad's careless ways - for his prayers to have any weight.

Relationship with God restored, Brad turned his attention and prayers to Sunshine. For him, those Bible references to healing weren't literary devices. They were promises that God hears his saints and responds when they ask for something in the name of Jesus.With the zeal of a radically new believer, he threw himself into fasting and prayer. In light of God's power, he would only accept a full recovery.

Though given only three months to live, Sunshine's health began to dramatically improve. Eventually she was cured completely. Brad saw this not only as an answered prayer, but a new commission. He would pray for as many people as possible, hoping God might similarly change their fate.

So now he stands stoically in the same spot every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., three solid hours faithfully hoping and praying that God will lead an injured soul his way.

I lay my hand on his shoulder and pray for his ministry. Then I walk away scratching my head. It's not that I question Sunshine's healing, but almost automatically I begin questioning Brad's methodology. Does the healing of someone you love give you the gift of healing? Will God will hear your prayers for any stranger on the street? And the pure white clothes, the Christian flag, the way he almost tests God by showing up in the same place every week - Isn't it just a bit, well, crazy?

After turning it over in my mind, I decide that it is. But instead of leaving me feeling superior, this realization leaves me convicted.

Brad has the audacity, born of faith, to actually believe what Jesus says, that we will do greater things than he, that prayers seeking his kingdom will be granted. I rarely venture to a place where worldly wisdom runs out, where risk forces me to rely on God's power. I never ask for it, and then I wonder where it is.

I think every true believer needs a dose of craziness, at least by the world's standards (think Noah, John the Baptist, even Jesus). Maybe then our first reaction to an act of radical faith won't be criticism, but celebration knowing that there are still some of us out there who take God at his word, despite what others - even our fellow believers - might think.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Back from the dead...again?

You can run Michael Myers over with a car, chop his head clean off with an axe or riddle him with bullets, but you can never be sure he's dead until they stop making Halloween sequels.

That's kind of how I feel about this blog. The credits have long rolled, and the few readers I once had probably forgot it existed. But I'm trying to learn a lesson in perseverance from the masked madman: It's never too late for a comeback. Hopefully my writing won't be quite as terrifying as that pale face and those hollow, unfeeling eyes.

Those (very few) who followed me before might scoff. I have promised to reboot this blog in the past, they'll rightly point out. It's true, and I have no other defense than to say that I sincerely hope that this time will be different, that I will truly repent of my non-blogging ways.

The problem has never been lack of material. I've been pressed a little for time over the past year or two, but I've had plenty of adventures worth sharing in travel, writing, marriage, church and other aspects of life.

I think my main impediment has been perfectionism. I never wanted to be one of those bloggers who shares everything he ate for breakfast or bought at the grocery store that day. (That's what Twitter's for, right?) I'm not necessarily knocking such writers. Many of them of them employ a great mix of knowledge, humor and raw personality that have won them audiences far larger than I'll ever attract.

I guess I feel that blogging is a bit like karaoke for writers, at least in the way I've approached it. A man who knows he can't sing has no problem making a fool of himself on stage at the karaoke bar. It's a bit harder for an award-winning tenor to let loose and belt out "Friends in Low Places." He's got a lot more invested in his identity as a singer, and therefore, more to lose if he screws it up.

Not that my writing is as sweet as Frank Sinatra's voice. That's where the analogy breaks down. What I'm saying is that I always feel like I have to write something groundbreaking in order for it to be worth sharing, when that's really not the case at all. I've withheld too many insights (and blunders), and I've failed to share countless travel experiences that might have proven useful to others, all because I've been too scared to miss a note. Now I'm going to try to lighten up, join the party and have some fun.

So here's what you can expect: I know that most blogs these days have a predictable editorial direction. Some folks pontificate about money, travel, raising children, church planting or another niche in which they've got hard-earned (or self-declared) expertise. I work in online media, so I know that specialization is the key to successful blogging, but that's not what I envision here. My thoughts will be the glue that holds Still Standing together.

I'm not veering totally into left field. I plan to introduce pages to corral posts on some of my more prominent themes, like travel, faith, manhood, family and China. I expect that other blogs (hopefully one on short-term missions in China, specifically) will branch off from this page. Then, I'll try to build a loyal following based on the principles of content marketing.

For now, just consider me back for yet another thrilling sequel.

Cue the Halloween theme song...